[DEBATE] : Murray Bookchin: Anarchism, Marxism & the Future of the left
Michael K. Dorsey
Michael.K.Dorsey at Dartmouth.EDU
Tue Feb 12 05:43:42 GMT 2008
On Anarchism, Marxism & the Future of the left...
Begin forwarded message:
> From: Mitchel Cohen <mitchelcohen at mindspring.com>
> Date: January 11, 2008 9:49:17 AM GMT-05:00
> To: mitchelcohen at mindspring.com
> Subject: [EcoRev] Murray Bookchin: Anarchism, Marxism & the Future
> of the left
> Reply-To: EcoRev at yahoogroups.com
> Dear friends, comrades and fellow earthlings,
> Muray Bookchin died last year and left us with quite a complex
> legacy. I've been reading his own account of his early life, his
> interviews in the essay, "From Marxism to Anarchism: A Life on the
> Left." Murray, who was born in 1921 and who never passed up an
> opportunity to turn "hello, how are you?" into a political harangue,
> has written an incredibly vivid and pithy description of the working
> class political "scene" in the 1930s in New York City that is
> absolutely riveting. He joined the Communist Party's youth
> organization (Young Pioneers) when he was 12 years old and went out
> every evening on the streets to sell Party newspapers and join
> political debates with hundreds and sometimes thousands of others.
> The city was abuzz with revolutionary ferment. It was a truly radical
> "school of the streets: shaped, of course, by the 1917 revolution
> and subsequent events in the Soviet Union as much as by economic
> conditions here at home. Murray describes what city life was like
> in working class neighborhoods before the advent of television.
> Looking back from today, that social landscape is almost
> Along the way he flies through just about every political question
> under the sun, but in a way that is soooo accessible -- as part of
> those movements and not as abstract contemplations -- that I, who
> had never exactly been a fan of Bookchin's (to put it mildly)
> following awful experiences I had with him in the Clamshell
> Alliance anti-nuke
> movement in the late 1970s, heartily recommend this book.
> Bookchin was the founder, in the 1960s, of the school of thought
> known as "social ecology"; and indeed, it is that avenue that Greens
> need to explore. I've written critiques of Bookchin myself, most
> notably a little pamphlet titled "Listen, Bookchin," which is a
> response to his own diatribe "Listen, Marxist". Still, I've been
> occasionally forced to revisit my own critique through friends, most
> notably Brian Tokar and Chaia Heller, who worked with Murray at the
> Institute for Social Ecology in northern Vermont for decades. I
> believe Howie Hawkins and other notable figures in the ecology
> movement got their education there, too. In recent years my friend
> Peggy Dye -- who died a few weeks ago -- lectured there, as did
> Carmelo Ruiz (a very important writer concerned with genetic
> engineering and Latin America) and Joel Kovel. Like many of us, Joel
> had extremely "mixed" experiences with Bookchin, wrote some very
> important critiques, and became the target of some of Bookchin's
> stupidest barbs (see below).
> A few months ago I visited Brian at his small home on a sort of
> collectively run farm in East Montpelier, where we began drafting a
> series of questions for ourselves and for the left and ecology
> intersecting movements we're part of. Instead of coffee (okay, we did
> drink a bit of Zapatista organic fair trade java), we ate dozens of
> deliciously tart organic tomatoes fresh from the vine, keeping us
> awake and focused while we ripped through draft after draft of the
> documents we were working on, and which I will post here in a few
> days. And we of course visited bookstores, my favorite one being
> Black Sheep Books on Langdon Street in Montpelier, which sits atop a
> wonderful worker-owned coffeehouse and where I traded a bunch of my
> pamphlets for a copy of Murray Bookchin's book.
> It was amazing to see, with new eyes, the huge impact that Murray
> Bookchin has had on anarchist and ecological circles in Vermont -- he
> being a City boy to the max. His ideas are still debated up there,
> though the Institute for Social Ecology has lost its magnificent if
> rustic home in Plainfield and is searching for a new place to settle
> down. It was quite the experience to be part of a network that
> actually takes these (or ANY) ideas seriously, and I once again was
> thrown back to a time -- one which Murray describes so well -- where
> that way of living was widespread, and when ideas MATTERED.
> So I wanted here to print an excerpt -- not the most exciting part
> that I've described above -- partly because Bookchin attacks our
> friend Joel Kovel (in Murray's own inimicable way) and I think it
> would be interesting to respond to that critique (Joel?), and partly
> to give us -- and especially folks newer to the Greens but also SDS
> and recent social and ecological movements -- the opportunity to
> break away from the narrow electoral-oriented questions that pass for
> "politics" these days on our lists and engage philosophically with
> some very interesting and challenging ideas. Of course, my "agenda"
> is to try to create that kind of culture in the Greens where such
> ideas are treated seriously and where philosophical and ecological
> concepts MATTER, and where thoughtful, radical "interventions" into
> how the left frames and responds to the problems society is facing
> can actually make a difference.
> - Mitchel Cohen
> Brooklyn Greens / Green Party
> Excerpt (midway through) "From Marxism to Anarchism: A Life on the
> Left", in
> Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left: Interviews and
> Essays, 1993-1998
> by Murray Bookchin
> I wrote a number of my early works in Contemporary Issues under the
> pseudonym Lewis Herber. One of them, The Problem of Chemicals in
> Food, was published in Contemporary Issues in 1952. In that article I
> explored the dangers of pesticides and the abuse of antibiotics,
> among many other related issues. In those days antibiotics were being
> so widely used that they were even being put in ice to preserve fish,
> so that giant fishing vessels, with their enormous nets, could remain
> at sea more or less indefinitely. Also, hormones were being injected
> into poultry and into cattle to fatten them -- hormones that we now
> know are carcinogenic. Food colorings were being used on a lavish
> scale -- basically coal tar dyes, which were known to be derived from
> cancer causing substances. So I wrote a long article, which was also
> published as a book in 1954 in Germany under my pen name. I said that
> these technologies, and specifically chemicals, were being used
> lavishly in agriculture, depositing residues in soil; in prepared
> foods; and in synthetic materials, primarily because of profit and an
> ideology of dominating the natural world.
> What induced you to develop your ideas on social ecology?
> Marx clearly argued that capitalism must either grow or die, that
> capitalist enterprises must either expand and devour their rivals or
> else themselves be devoured. In order to be able to grow, a
> capitalist enterprise in agribusiness must therefore continually turn
> soil into sand, or a capitalist build shopping centers and expand
> highways, must turn land into concrete, or to make paper must turn
> forests into newsprint. I said that these drives in capitalism were
> pitting capitalist society inexorably against the integrity of the
> natural environment, that they were forever turning the organic into
> the inorganic, to the detriment of the natural world. I said
> capitalism was simplifying the planet as well as poisoning it. I
> stressed the issue of simplification as emphatically as I could.
> Around 1958 a disaster occurred in the United States: only a week or
> so before Thanksgiving, the cranberry crop was poisoned by a
> herbicide, I can no longer remember which one it was. This act of
> pollution caused a veritable panic. People ran around desperately
> looking for unpolluted cranberries to make cranberry sauce for their
> family turkey dinners on Thanksgiving. And I thought, here is a
> lesson that people will not forget. So I wrote a book that I called
> Our Synthetic Environment. I explored various diseases for which
> doctors had no diagnosis. I went into the whole question of
> simplifying the planet. I surveyed and demanded that we turn toward
> organic forms of agriculture.
> Now you should know that hardly anyone was talking about organic in
> those days. And I take great pride in that fact that I was advancing
> fairly innovative ideas, although they were not exclusively my tea
> about how we were raising not only crops but poultry, beef, general,
> using dangerous chemicals, and I discussed the stresses people were
> suffering in modern urban life, as well as the problems being created
> by nuclear reactors and radiation. In short, I ran the out of what
> was wrong with our society from an ecological and I related it
> essentially to the capitalist imperative to grow or die.
> Finally I concluded my book with a chapter called "Decentralization,"
> in which I advocated the use of renewable forms of energy -- solar
> energy, wind power, water power, thermal energy -- as an alternative
> to fossil fuels and nuclear fuels. I called for an entirely new
> dispensation, a new decentralized society in which we could live in
> harmony with the natural world, using these alternative techniques.
> Alternative energy was almost unknown at that time. In fact, MIT had
> explored the possibilities for using solar energy for some years but
> had finally dismissed its feasibility with the conclusion that it was
> too costly to compete with fossil fuels. As for wind power, an
> attempt had been made in Vermont, at Grandpa's Knob, during the
> Second World War, to test its possibilities, but the effort had been
> abandoned. It was simply written off. I can say that it was at least
> somewhat innovative that I argued for an alternative technology, or
> what I called an "eco-technology" and made a blanket condemnation of
> the whole relationship of capitalism to the environment.
> The book was published in 1962 by Alfred A. Knopf, one of the most
> outstanding publishers in the United States -- a "publisher's
> publisher," as it was called. Six months later Rachel Carson came out
> with Silent Spring and swamped whatever readership I might have
> gained. My book sold reasonably well, mainly within the scientific
> community I may say, but less so among the public. But nobody could
> compete with Rachel's stylistic magic and her great following as an
> established nature writer. She did a wonderful job with "Silent
> Spring," and it had at least five million readers. But she didn't
> make, by any means, the wide-ranging critique that I did.
> She alerted people primarily to the dangers of pesticides, and her
> main focus was on birds. The attention she gave to human beings seems
> only secondary. But even if human beings were a secondary
> consideration in Carson's book, they were concerned about the kinds
> of sprays they were using. During those years people were using
> pesticides and eagerly extolling the "miracles" of chemistry
> everywhere. One major chemical corporation popularized the slogan
> "Better things for better living through chemistry" (Years later,
> they dropped the words "through chemistry" if I'm not mistaken. By
> then, chemistry had become something of a dirty word.) The nature of
> my critique was recognized very clearly by Rene Dubos, who became an
> outstanding environmentalist in later years, and by others who
> praised the book as more comprehensive than Carson's.
> In short, I tried to raise broader issues that had immense cultural
> implications about the human spirit, about an ethical society,
> recognizing that both ecology and a very emancipatory vision of
> society required decentralization. I realized that the views I was
> advancing came more from an anarchist tradition than from a Marxist
> I was calling for social changes that were more comprehensive than
> the abolition of classes and exploitation. I was calling for the
> abolition of hierarchies as well, of states, not of economic power
> alone. Hierarchy was a kind of psycho-institutional power based on
> social status -- in other words, rule and domination, not only
> exploitation for material gain. A classless society, a
> nonexploitative society, it seemed to me, could still have
> bureaucracies and states -- namely, hierarchies -- and even if elites
> in hierarchies had no material privileges, they had psycho-social
> privileges -- a sense of superiority that came from dominating
> people. In Plato's Republic, in fact, the guardians deny themselves
> the good material things of life; they rid themselves of fleshpots,
> live austerely, on sparse diets, indeed they are very Spartan, but
> they enjoy enormous authority -- they rule -- and that's what is
> important to them.
> Here let me interject an important point on hierarchy, to counter
> some of the distortions of my views on the subject. A hierarchy is an
> institutionalized system of domination, by which clearly definable
> and well-organized strata of people accrue distinct material,
> cultural, and moral privileges -- not merely, as in classes, by the
> ownership or control of property and the exploitation of labor.
> Please let me emphasize that every word in this definition is
> important. Such strata appeared before classes and might well exist
> after their abolition -- notably patriarchy, racial degradation,
> bureaucratism, nationalism, and so on. One Marxist critic of mine,
> Joel Kovel, has recently written that some hierarchies can be
> classified as good. As an example of a "good hierarchy," he cites
> parental care: parents feed their babies rather than cast a milk
> bottle into a crib and compel them to feed themselves. Kovel wrongly
> attributes to me the notion that parental care is a "good hierarchy,"
> but in fact I deny that it is a hierarchical relationship at all.
> Hierarchy is a social term, referring to structures of institutional
> domination; parental relationships are quasi-biological as well as
> social. To call a relationship of dependency a hierarchical
> relationship is to dissolve the meaning of hierarchy as a designation
> of the structures of domination. Following his logic, one might claim
> that a sow lying on its side to feed its piglets is evidence of a
> "good hierarchy," while a frog casting its eggs in a pool where
> insemination takes place at random exemplifies a "bad hierarch."
> People who can accept this silly argument deserve Professor Kovel's
> Zen spin on Marxism.
> In any case, as important as it was to abolish classes and
> exploitation, a classless society, I contended, would not necessarily
> be a good society. It would also be necessary to abolish domination
> and the hierarchical structures that yield domination. This approach
> made me decide very assuredly that I wanted to fight for an ethical
> socialism, or communism, free of domination, based on confederation,
> based on an ethics of complementarity, in which people supplement
> each other with their various abilities instead of ruling each other.
> In effect, I developed a form of ecological anarchism, which Victor
> Ferkiss, referring to my work, later called eco-anarchism. The name I
> gave it, though, was social ecology. I started writing about it
> earnestly in the 1960s. I wrote a series of works, the first of which
> was an essay, even a manifesto, called "Ecology and Revolutionary
> Thought." It declared that we are living in the age of ecology. In
> the days of Galileo and the Renaissance, mechanics had informed the
> prevailing social outlook, and in the Victorian era Darwinian biology
> and evolutionary theory had constituted the ideology, at least in the
> natural sciences. Now, I argued, we are entering the age of ecology.
> I've since seen this "age of ecology" designation recycled all over
> the place as though I never said it in 1964.
> In this manifesto-essay I pointed out that the ecological crisis that
> was being produced by capitalism and by hierarchical society with its
> message of dominating nature, stemmed really from the domination of
> people. That is, the ideology of dominating nature stems from the
> real domination of human by human. Until we abolish the domination of
> human by human, not only exploitation but also domination, and not
> only classes but also hierarchies, we would always have an ideology
> of dominating the natural world. If capitalism continued to exist,
> with that ideology and with its irrational technological advances,
> and to grow mindlessly, then we were obliged to eliminate hierarchy,
> domination, classes, and exploitation before we could hope to achieve
> an ecological society.
> As I've mentioned, I called this eco-anarchist vision social ecology,
> because ecology is a discipline rooted in the biological sciences,
> and how people deal with the natural world, with "first nature" or
> biological evolution, depends upon the kind of society in which they
> live. A society based on a grow-or-die market economy must destroy
> the biosphere because of the very imperatives -- growth and capital
> accumulation -- that drive it along this anti-ecological path
> irrespective of any other factors.
> Almost immediately after finishing "Ecology and Revolutionary
> Thought," I wrote "Towards a Liberatory Technology" in which I called
> for the use of solar power and wind power, hydroelectric power, or
> geothermal energy, indeed all the different renewable forms of energy
> that could be used in a more ecological social order. Needless to
> say, in 1964, I was really feeling my way in the dark, because none
> of these alternatives were being explored as far as I know. It was E.
> E Schumacher who made them very popular in Small Is Beautiful, but as
> his references show, he was familiar with my work when he did so. The
> ecology movement now takes alternative, renewable energy for granted,
> as though the idea came from the heavens. But that movement didn't
> really come into existence to any noticeable extent until the 1970s,
> following the first Earth Day. But thafs another story.
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